The Ethics of Gothic Scholarship

Posted by Dale Townshend on March 04, 2011 in Blog tagged with

In the work I am currently doing on Gothic fiction, historiography and architecture in the period 1740-1830, I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading around archives, ruins and the philosophical / theoretical implications thereof, from Volney, through Freud and Marx, and into Benjamin, Derrida and others.  I’ve spent much of this afternoon, in fact, rereading parts of Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, first published, in French, in 1995.    The work of Jacques Derrida has long held a deep interest for me, particularly the turn towards ethics perceivable in the later writings.  Derrida’s reflections on ghosts and their potentially ethical functions, particularly in the influential study Specters of Marx (1993 / 1994), are, of course, well know, if not critically over-used.  Nonetheless, I was struck by the following passage in the later Archive Fever insofar as it renders the Gothic-scholarly interest in things ghostly and spectral a matter of ethical concern, importance and urgency.  Here is the passage:

“A scholar addressing a phantom recalls irresistibly the opening of Hamlet.  At the spectral apparition of the dead father, Marcellus implores Horatio: ‘Thou art a Scholler, speake to it, Horatio.’  I have tried to show elsewhere [i.e. in Specters of Marx] that though the classical scholar did not believe in phantoms and truly would not know how to speak to them, even forbidding himself to do so, it is quite possible that Marcellus had anticipated the coming of a scholar of the future, a scholar who, in the future and so as to conceive of the future, would dare to speak to the phantom.  A scholar who would dare to admit that he knows how to speak to the phantom, even claiming that this not only neither contradicts nor limits his scholarship but will in truth have conditioned it, at the price of some still-inconceivable complication that may yet prove the other one, that is, the phantom, to be correct.  And perhaps always the paternal phantom, that is, who is in a position to be correct, to be proven correct–and to have the last word” (39).

Although I’m a little uneasy with the casual (but no doubt self-aware, even ironic) alignment of truth, authority and paternity in this quotation, I do find Derrida’s characterisation of the ideal ‘scholar of the future’ as one who is capable of speaking with, as well as acknowledging his powerlessness over, ghosts rather intriguing.  It raises, for me, the issue of a Gothic ethics, not only with regards to an ethical system that might be tentatively and provisionally sketched out in Gothic texts from the eighteenth century onwards — an ethical system which I am almost certain is there, and one which also serves to account for the perennial popularity of the mode — but also the ethical dimensions to the ‘scholarly’ approach to spectral Gothic writing.  How, then, might we conceptualise both Gothic writing, and the scholarly poses we adopt in relation to it, as, specifically, ethical acts, as provisional and non-orthodox as these might be?  Via Levinas’s Absolute Other and radical alterity?  Via Lacan’s notion of the ethical refusal to cede one’s desire, an Antigone-derived trope that features throughout the mode?  Via the attitude we adopt towards the spectral and representations thereof?  How, in a word, might we become the ethical scholars of Derrida’s impossible, ghostly future?

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